The Third Sunday of Advent December 11, 2005
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
63, 486, 377(1,7-10), 64
Lord, You have been favorable to Your land; You have brought back the captivity of Jacob. You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people; You have covered all their sin. You have taken away all Your wrath; You have turned from the fierceness of Your anger. Restore us, O God of our salvation, and cause Your anger toward us to cease. Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your mercy, Lord, and grant us Your salvation. I will hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people and to His saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. Yes, the Lord will give what is good; and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before Him, and shall make His footsteps our pathway.
Fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus:
A few minutes ago, we heard from Isaiah 40 that section where a mysterious voice orders the prophet to “Cry out!” The prophet answers with the question, “What shall I say?” I remember that feeling! That’s what it seemed like in seminary when we were first learning to prepare a sermon. It was very difficult, even after hours of study, prayer, and searching for a theme, to be able to know just what to write; how to say what needed to be said to the imaginary audience to whom you were to preach.
There are times where an experienced preacher still has trouble knowing what to say—either because he has trouble discerning a main thought from the scripture text, or because he doesn’t quite know how to lay it before the people. But it really shouldn’t be that difficult, should it? Usually, the problem comes when we get in the way of the Word. The Sons of Korah, the liturgical group that prepared the psalm of our text, had a good solution: “I will hear what God, the Lord, will speak.” On this day when the ministry of the Gospel figures so prominently into our Advent thoughts, we pray that these words will give us a better appreciation of the Gospel minister’s testimony. I. God’s words apply to him, II. He warns of the realities of sin, III. He proclaims the paradox of grace.
Maybe the phrase, “I will hear…” doesn’t seem to fit the question, which is, what is the Gospel minister supposed to say? Some people might get the wrong idea from those words and suppose that the Gospel preacher is to wait around until he hears or feels or imagines that God is speaking directly to him and giving him something which he should pass on to his hearers. There are plenty of so-called preachers out there who operate that way. The old Lutheran scholars called such people schwaermeri—enthusiasts—people who claimed to have some special communication with God.
The preacher’s relationship with God isn’t any different, really, than that of his hearers. This is exactly the point the minister needs to remember: God’s words apply to him, first of all.
The Psalmist says “I will hear what God, the Lord will speak.” [v.8] God is speaking to the minister through His word just a surely as He is to anyone else. The Gospel preacher is a condemned sinner aware of his guilt before God, just like other people. When he looks within himself he realizes, as Paul did, that “…in me nothing good dwells” (Romans 7.18). Somebody once said that when the preacher points the accusing finger and says, “Repent of your sin!” he still has three fingers pointing back at himself!
The message the minister preaches to every straying member is a message he knows applies to him as well. That means when he seeks to bring comfort to the down-hearted, or to invigorate the sleepy Christianity that so often afflicts us today, he speaks from a personal appreciation of his own message. He understands the pain and guilt that sin has brought into your lives, because it means something to him too.
The preacher in the Psalm saw himself as part of—not apart from—the fortunes of Israel. It is not only he who has something special with God. It is the people he is united with through faith in God’s covenant promises. He remembers the many rich blessings Jehovah, the covenant God, has shown Israel: “You have been favorable to your land; you have brought back the captivity of Jacob…you have turned from the fierceness of Your anger.” [vv.1ff]
But that means he’s deeply aware of their current misfortunes and he feels them too: “…cause your anger with us to cease. Will you be angry to all generations?” [v.4f] There are times when God’s people may wonder what is going on: the Jews held captive in Babylon, the faithful at the time of Christ ruled tyrants, when a church burns down, when a church body grows corrupt. At such times of distress, the servant of the Lord is often the one most tormented by the situation, the one first trying to identify the problem, the one most afflicted by God’s apparent distance.
Now, understanding that he is part of God’s people and a sinner in need for forgiveness, the Gospel minister is all the more ready with a message to bring. Part of his message is to warn of the realities of sin.
This psalm isn’t just an idle song of praise. It is an appeal. The preacher has seen something that is seriously out of place, something that has his people apparently rejected by God. They were in spiritual danger, and the Psalmist is moved to publicly prays in such a way that the people are indirectly warned of their sin. Daniel, in Babylon does the same thing when he prays for the redemption of the Jews: “O Lord our God…we have sinned, we have done wickedly” (Daniel 9:5ff).
Don’t you think it would be pretty humbling if you heard someone you knew to be good-hearted and sincere praying for you as if he himself were guilty of your sins? The shepherd of the congregation often feels very deeply the guilt of sins his members commit. He is concerned.
He also speaks, using God’s word to rebuke sin, and to correct the erring. Listen to some of the New Testament authors, as they analyze genuine problems among their congregations.
John the Baptist led the charge with the warning to the Jews: “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9-10).
Paul concludes that because of the Corinthians’ misuse of the Lord’s Supper, “many are weak and sick among you…” (1 Corinthians 11:30).
James pulled no punches with the hypocrisy practiced by many of his Jewish Christian brethren. He warned them against holding “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality” (James 2:1). In practice, such partiality would show itself in being receptive to the wealthy and popular, but cold toward the poor and lowly. Later, James wonders aloud how it can be that among children of God there is an inconsistency of speech: “out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:10)
There are many other examples in which the minister rebukes the sins of the flock entrusted to his care. We are more and more aware that Satan, the world, and our own flesh are constantly trying to creep into the lives of people like you and me—people whom Christ redeemed with His own blood. These spiritual enemies strive so that God’s great work might be overthrown and you or I or some other believer might be lost forever.
When he sees that the people of God are drifting away, or growing cold in their first love—the love that flows out of saving faith—the Gospel minister, with the psalmist, prays to the Lord “Will you not revive us again that your people might rejoice in You?” [v.6]
You would think, from the foregoing, that the Gospel minister must have a watchdog role—a schoolyard monitor who catches offenders and makes them stand in a corner for a while. That seems to be the model of many preachers who spend most of their time moralizing and lamenting the condition of society these days. But it doesn’t fit the image of the true preacher of the Gospel. His calling is truly unique, wonderful, and effective beyond understanding. Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets. How was that? Because of his close relation to Christ and because his ministry was all about pointing people to the paradox of grace.
A paradox is an occasion where you find opposing or conflicting ideas set beside each other in an odd harmony. Isaiah presented a visual paradox when he spoke of the day when the “…wolf will lie down with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6). We find the same sort of paradox proclaimed at the end of the psalm: “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.” [v.10]
Here we have two pairs of qualities that seem opposed to each other. Mercy is kindness, the ability to overlook a weakness or flaw, willingness to accept one just as he is. Truth, on the other hand, is absolute, unyielding, inflexible in upholding a standard. One would seem to displace the other.
The same is true with righteousness and peace. Righteousness is the quality of holiness, purity, always being right. Righteousness is what God has every right to expect of us. Peace, on the other hand, suggests quietness, health, an inner soundness—something we don’t experience when we realize our sins, and sense God’s judgment.
The Gospel preacher proclaims the day that mercy and truth have met together. He announces that righteousness and peace have kissed. He proclaims the incarnation with Isaiah, Moses, John the Baptist, Peter, John, and Paul. He proclaims the eternal paradox of God becoming man and dwelling among us. Gospel ministers are here to proclaim the event of the cross, where it became possible for God’s mercy and God’s truth to meet together because He honestly punished sin in Christ so that He could show mercy to man. The Gospel preacher’s testimony is that in the work of Christ, “righteousness and peace have kissed” — they are united and are there for all the world to see.
Christ is our righteousness. Christ is our peace. This is the good news that the Gospel minister is ultimately to proclaim. His ministry is not about laying down laws and trying to manipulate behavior. His ministry is about announcing to you the good news that will give you a new life. He doesn’t wish to condemn the sinner and leave him in despair. He only wants every man to despair of his own counterfeit righteousness and to find out the awesome salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let the people join with the preacher, in saying “Lord, you have been favorable to your land…Yes, the Lord will give what is good; and our land will yield its increase.” [vv.1,12] If we hear God’s glorious message of salvation and peace, if we listen when the Lord’s servants rebuke our sin and proclaim peace in Jesus’ name, the fruits of righteousness will spring up out of our joyous hearts.
The preacher who listens to God’s Word and takes it to heart for himself and his members will soon find his voice.
Another poet-preacher, this one from Luther’s church, knew just what to say when he discovered the paradox of grace:
I lay in fetters, groaning
Thou com’st to set me free
I stood, my shame bemoaning
Thou com’st to honor me;
A glory Thou dost give me
A treasure safe on high
That will not fail or leave me
As earthly riches fly. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.